Northwest Music History: Punk

The F-Holes

The F-Holes formed out of a jam session on Nov 21, 1984 at The Central Tavern near Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The original members were “Lucky” Tony Mathews, Douglas “Stringtie” Creson and John “Moondog” Mooney. The jam consisted of three songs. The booker was impressed enough to ask them to open for his band, The Alleged Perpetrators on Dec 14, 1984, and a band was born. Since that night The F-Holes have consistently been part of the Seattle music scene.

One night while Stringtie was playing pinball at a tavern with Kevin Heaven (a local musician and well-known scenester)’ Kevin said;“You gotta check out my new f-hole guitar!” Stringtie went home that night and made a poster. He brought it to rehearsal the next day. “We are the F-Holes” he told them.  The newly-named outfit’s drummer, John “Moondog” Mooney asked;“What am I gonna tell my Mom?”

1985 brought a solid stream of bookings.  The bookings continued.  The first few years The F-holes played more shows than they rehearsed. Doug Creson recalls;

“We’d rehearse on Wednesdays and play shows Thursday , Friday and Saturday”.

Things changed in 1986 when the F=Holes added Otis P. Otis on lead guitar. He was a huge Johnny Thunders fan and brought a heavier sound that lead the band into the pre-grunge era. The original F-holes sound included generous heaps of Psychobilly, Cowpunk, Garage Rock, Punk, Acid Blues and 60s Psychedelia. They add they also play Country music, though they add

“we’re not sure which country“.

Along with Otis  came a sound that brought the band to a new level and wider audience. They still played the same music as before-only heavier.  Their look was still psychobilly with the big pompadours and cowboy boots and bolo ties.  That would change in later years, but for the earlier part of their career the band was known for their appearance as much as their music.  Both were fun, over the edge and a little bit retro as far as their dedication to punk.

“Promoters always had a hard time pegging our sound but we played with all kinds of bands. Punk, Alt Country, Grunge, Power Pop” says Creson.

The biggest misconception may be that the F-Holes are a rockabilly band.  It’s a claim the band adamantly deny.  Since the beginning they’ve always played a few rockabilly-tinged numbers, and they often dressed in a style associated with rockabilly.  Still, it’s hard to listen to them without thinking they’re nothing less than a great punk-pop band with the talent to pull off just about anything they throw out to their audience.

Th band is also known for wicked sense of humor.  In 2011 when the magazine Seattle Sinner asked them what their fondest Christmas memory was Creson told the interviewer;

“We played a Buzz Scooter Club party in an abandoned building with 64 Spiders. On the way to the gig we bought a sheet of windowpane acid, 100 hits. At the party we dissolved the acid into the punch bowl. People were drinking kegger cups full of this shit. By the time we finished our set everyone was just flying, wandering around lost on the upper floors like wide eyed zombies. I wonder how many bodies they found when they tore that place down. This was in 1984, back when you hipsters were still crappin’ in your diapers and sucking breakfast out of your mama’s knockers”.
True story.

By the mid ‘90s band members drifted into other bands, failed marriages, rehab and dead-end corporate jobs. They played a few uninspired shows, now and again…not really breaking up, just not playing with the same passion and frequency as before.

In 2006 The F-Holes were invited to play Geezerfest at Seattle’s legendary Crocodile Cafe. It was a
showcase of bands that helped create the alternative sound and so-called “grunge” Seattle had become known for in the 1990’s.   These were long-time workhorse bands that had actually developed the sound, others had built their success on, but despite their talent were overlooked getting signed to a big record deals. Along with The F-Holes, the line up included bands like Catbutt, Coffin Break, Swallow, Snow Bud and The Flower People,  Blood Circus, Love Battery, and  other worthy bands.

The F-Holes showcase was so well-received that it led to their playing steady ever since. Now in their 33rd year of rocking their fans remain rabidly loyal, and friends are bringing their kids (and grandkids?) to their shows.

The F-Holes recorded output over the years has been sporadic…in fact there’s been only a few recordings available; but the good news is that they’ll be entering into the studio with Jack Endino in 2018. They’ve also found a newer and younger audience while keeping the old-timers.  An Endino-produced album looks promising.

The Stranger magazine’s Mike Nipper observed that after so many years;

“The F-Holes are, dare I say, a smart and (ahem) “songwriterly,” kickass punk group, and live they’re driving as a mofo”.

Even more fitting, on their website the F-Holes simply say “Totally Skankin’ since 1984”.

 

-Dennis R. White-Sources; Doug “Stringtie” Creason;  The F-Holes (home page, http://fholesrock-blog.tumblr.com); Mike Nipper (The Stranger, February 23, 2016); The F-Holes (thatsdadastic.com, 2010); Chuck Foster (“The F-Holes Unmasked: F-Holes Celebrate 28 Years of Being Misunderstood”  Seattle Sinner, December 2011)

Silly Killers

The Silly Killers are one of early 80s Seattle punk bands that would probably be forgotten years ago if it wasn’t for the fact that former Guns N’Roses’ Michael “Duff” McKagen was a member for a short time.  One has to wonder what rabid metal fans would have felt if Duff had continued playing in a multitude of punk bands before becoming famous in one of the all-time most successful metal bands in history; after all McKagen, from a very young age, was one of the most prolific members of early Seattle punk.  Most likely all of his hard work might have been little more than a footnote were it not for relocating from Seattle to Los Angeles-being a footnote is a fate he obviously would not deserve.  But in spite of McKagen’s short time with the Silly Killers, they had already become stars in their own right among Seattle’s punk community. The Silly Killers’ reputation in recent years has also has been heightened by new-found interest in their only 7” recording of what’s usually referred to as the Knife Manual EP, and two other hard to find tracks that have only been “officially” released on the excellent 1983 cassette “What Syndrome” put out by local label Deux Ex Machina Records And Tapes in 1983.

Then there’s Slats (born Chris Harvey) founding member of the Silly Killers who died in 2010 after years of being an iconic figure not only in the punk community, but in the city at large. Despite his ongoing addiction and alcoholism Slats made the rounds two and a half decades as a highly visible character in both Seattle’s University District and on Capitol Hill.  Some worried about him.  Others made bets on how long he would live.  Aside from that Slats was a genial, kind and generous person who had simply found himself in the grips of addiction.  Some friends have reported that he was clean his last few years, but there’s no doubt he was not sober.  You could often find him drinking in one of Seattle’s many musicians’ hangouts-always ready to talk and (what the hell) accept a free drink.  However addiction is in no way a character flaw and it’s clear that many were touched by his legacy…friends who had known him for years, and strangers who had only sighted him from afar.  He was much more than a cast-off.

From the mid 80’s onward Slats was well known for his “uniform”.  Punk-rock (all black) regalia, including skinny jeans and ratted, longish black hair almost always topped by a wide-brimmed hat.  If he never became a huge rock star he was always dressed as if he would be soon…perhaps as a re-incarnation of Johnny Thunders. But the legacy of the Silly Killers goes beyond an iconic figure or a member of rock royalty. The Silly Killers began as one of a handful of seminal second generation hardcore bands that arose in Seattle during the early 1980’s.  It’s might even be misleading to call the Silly Killers “hardcore” since their music and performances did not follow the formula most early hardcore bands did.  The singing of vocalist Eddie Huget could be nuanced instead of a constant, disembodied supposedly traumatized suburban scream.  The songs were actually melodic at times…it might be more appropriate to call the Silly Killers a great little rock and roll band that found it’s place among punk rock.

The band was not above pissing off everyone, including their own fans.  Instead of using the term “pissing off” “taking the piss out of” may be more correct.  Often acting as provocateurs 0n several occasions the band used what seemed to be misogynistic images to promote their shows.  The images drew the wrath of those who didn’t see it as funny or as a stunt to heighten the Silly Killers image in the public eye.   Needless to say, they managed to anger Seattle’s feminist and lesbian communities often.

It’s been reported that in 1982 the Silly Killers were part of the very first punk-rock show in Tacoma, which is about 25 miles south of Seattle.  The bill included The Fartz and Wad Squad (led by the equally iconic Chuck “Upchuck” Gerra).  This claim could be argued, since punk was not new to Tacoma, but it’s also probable that this could have been the first, most visible show of important Seattle bands to do an all-ages show in Tacoma.  Nonetheless the Silly Killers had already made a name for themselves in Seattle,  although often found themselves as the opening act for more well-known local and regional bands.  Despite being largely a support band the Silly Killers had a devoted following and it grew each time they hit the stage.

It was during this era that the Silly Killers recorded their now infamous Knife Manual EP for Kurt Bloch’s No Threes Records.  Kurt was a founding member of The Fastbacks and another highly visible musician-even to this day- on the Seattle scene.  Although the output of No Threes was sporadic during the early 80s Kurt managed to release some of the most classic (and consequently desirable) singles of any local label.  His first four releases (Kill The BeeGees by The Accident,  Man as Hunter by The Cheaters, The Fastbacks debut single It’s Your Birthday and “You May Not Believe In Vains But You Cannot Deny Terror” by Vains-which also featured the near ubiquitous Duff McKagen. No Threes went on to release several Fastbacks records as well as other bands, including Pure Joy, and more recently The Yes Masters and Full Toilet as well as an excellent compilation of the early Fastbacks recordings. No Threes is still active and has also re-issued many of it’s original releases-except, mysteriously, the Silly Killers.

The fact that Silly Killers tracks have been included in several unauthorized bootlegs over the years deprived the original members even a modest amount of royalties.  One of the unauthorized compilations the Silly Killers can be found on is Killed By Death Volume 12 (1996, Redrum Records).  In fact the cover art for this volume is based on the very same image the Silly Killers used on their Knife Manual EP…but then again, they had stolen the image themselves. The photo used on the cover of Knife Manual is that of wrestler turned Ed Wood actor Tor Johnson.  Johnson is probably known best as the hulking figure in both Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959) as well as a few other Ed Wood films.  But, amazingly, Johnson was also featured in film and television from the big screen musical adaptation of Carousel to television’s Shirley Temple Theater to the Monkees psychedelic outing Head.

There have also been a few legitimate releases of the Silly Killers songs.  Among them is a tip of the hat from later Seattle favorites Gas Huffer.  They contributed their version of Knife Manual in 1992 on a split single with Mudhoney doing a cover of The Angry Samoan’s “You Stupid Asshole”.

The Silly Killers, like most early practitioners of punk never expected to make any money in the first place. They played and recorded for the hell of it, and knowing they’d be entertaining their fans.  They probably never dreamed they would have the status and influence of later generations.  After all, a review in the region’s premier music magazine The Rocket gave it a poor review, and sales of the 7” EP were modest at best.  Today copies are highly prized on the collectors market, but practically impossible to find…one copy recently sold for $200.

The Silly Killers were exceptionally entertaining live. Slats thrashed on guitar while lead singer Eddie  often Huletz feigned indifference when he wasn’t singing.  Both Gary Clukey and  Tim Gowell (now Steven Gowell) played with abandon. The shows could end in chaos (to the glee of audiences) and their set was filled with confrontational lyrics as well as the song titles on their EP which included Sissie Faggots and Social Bitch.  More strident members of the public had no sense of irony and considered the Silly Killers to be misogynistic and homophobic.  Of course it was all provocation as part of their schtick.  It should be noted here that Duff McKagen was not with the band at the time of their recording Knife Manual, but he is credited with “backing vocals” on the song Social Bitch.  By the time the Silly Killers recorded the two songs originally released on What Syndrome (Nothing To Say and Big Machine) Duff had replaced Gowell as drummer.  The band would dissolve soon after that, leaving Eddie and Gary (as well as Tim/Steven) to follow other pursuits while Duff McKagen continued his path toward becoming a rock star-and Seattle hero. As for Slats, he would continue to be a well-known figure in and around the Seattle music scene as well as somewhat of a cultural icon in the city-for decades.  He drifted in and out of bands, or made attempts at forming bands that never materialized and eventually went on to found Pain Cocktail, his final band.  He became a sort of romantic figure of the archetypical rock junkie that became almost de rigueur in some circles…especially in Seattle during the late 80s and early 90s.  Whether being taken seriously as a musician or simply “just another junkie” he was both revered and reviled by students University District where he was considered an “Ave. Rat” who was admired by others.  Later he spent time on the ever-more gentrified Capitol Hill.  “The Hill” still remained an important locale of the music scene and despite being written off  by many who didn’t know him, Slats was always ready to talk to anyone who approached him. According to Ross Beamish a fellow member of Pain Cocktail

I asked Slats one day if he had seen any of the bullshit people posted online about him.  He just shook his head casually and continued with whatever he was doing. It really didn’t bother him.” 

That was typical Slats…living in a world he’d built for himself but ready to engage with anyone and everyone with a respectful deference and kind heart.  In other words Slats was a good guy, despite his failings…and what failings he had didn’t really affect too many others outside of his mother.

In the spring of 2010 Slats fell and had to have hip surgery.  His lifestyle had done quite a bit of damage to his general health and he died from complications of the surgery on March 13, 2010.  There was a more-than-usual outpouring of love from the community for a one-time punk rocker turned professional addict/alcoholic.  His loss was mourned not only by his friends and family, but by strangers who had only had an occassional glimpse of him.  He’s remembered as a kind eccentric, and probably will be referred to for upcoming historians of Seattle music in the future.  But his lasting legacy will also be based on being involved in one 7” chunk of polyvinyl chloride pressed into a Seattle watershed moment.

-Dennis R.White. Sources: wabbit34, (last fm.com) Chris Harvey (discussions with the author 1984-2005};  “Knife Manual EP 7″ (biography and comments, Killed By Death Records, 1982-present) ” “Legendary Ave Rat Chris Harvey, AKA Slats, dies” (10 Things ‘Zine, March 16, 2010);  Josef Alton. “In Memorium” (City Arts, April 27, 2010); Justin Vinson “Silly Killers EP”  (Sugarbuzz Magaizine.com, date unknown)  “Tor Johnson” (IMDb.com)  “Not That Time Again” Video Slideshow ©Mike Leach

The Spectators

The Spectators played fewer than 20 gigs. They performed only 15 songs live. But their reputation as one of the most original and accomplished bands of the early Seattle alternative scene continues to grow into the 21st century. Their first gig was December 8th 1980, the same day John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. It was just like most other nights at Seattle’s legendary Gorilla Room on Second Avenue; a handful of people showed up, and more free beer was drunk up by the bar staff and their under-aged buddies than was ever sold. But that night one of the finest Seattle bands of the era played to the nearly empty club. Over the next few months the band would be regulars at the Gorilla Room and WREX and end up on the stage of Seattle’s Showbox Theater at least twice, as co-headliners, and as openers for The Stranglers. Later, Bob Mould, having played three dates with The Spectators while on the first national tour by Hüsker Dü , called them “the greatest unsigned band in America“. Less than a yearlater The Spectators were gone.

The Spectators combination of surf, metal, jazz and punk predates most alt bands with similar influences by a full decade. They were a power-trio, but one that dealt their deadly blows with intricate and subtle precision rather than blind swings. This was a band that had brains as well as brawn. By using a limited amount ofeffects, guitarist Byron Duff and bass player Stanford “Stan” Filarca created a sound so tightly woven that it was hard totell who was playing lead, where the rhythm was coming from and how they could possibly sound so big and layered at the same time. Add to the mix the powerful, inventive and perfect tempo of drummer Jeff Farrand and it’s hard to think of any finer trio in rock, signed or unsigned, even today.

During their short life The Spectators recorded very little of their output in the studio-about six studio tracks still exist. Unfortunately most of it has been lost or the tapes have degraded so badly they’re practically unlistenable.  Fortunately there still are some fairly high quality mono recording caught on a cassette player using a condenser mike! Some of these cassettes and board mixes have been discovered, including this recording of Call It Chaos. One-time Seattle promoter and indie label owner Maire Masco found an almost-perfect copy of the song (and four others) hidden away in an attic. Another notable tape that has surfaces is a live-in-studio session they did with producer/engineer Ed Shepard at his Seattle space The Funhole. Two of those songs were released on Masco’s 1982 cassette-only compilation release PRAVDA Volume I. The cassette is incredibly rare, and those that remain are worn-out, but the brilliance of The Spectators still shines through. They show the deft ability to meld bass, rhythm and lead guitar sections into their music so effectively that it can confound the listener into thinking there are far more instrument than a simple trio at work.  Oddly enough, The Spectators biggest influence wasn’t punk…it was the Prog Rock of the 1970s and early 80s.  It’s hard to envision that in their music.

After The Spectators disbanded, guitarist Byron Duff faded from the Seattle scene, much to it loss. Drummer Jeff Farrand left the NW for San Francisco. Bassist Stan Filarca managed to fill duties-although a bit funkier-for another of Seattle’s best bands to emerge in the 1980s The Beat Pagodas. He used the same creative arsenal as he did in The Spectators allowing for them to revel in their “no guitar“ ethos. Byron Duff re-emerged briefly in the late 1980s with his band Dive, Moth and more recently as guitarist for the band Idiot Culture, who finally released a brilliant album in 2012.

Duff was no slacker in the lyrics department either. That first night the band played at Seattle’s notorious Gorilla Room an old beat-up big-screen TV projected flickering images behind them. As someone behind the bar changed channels back and forth they stopped on an old sci-fi flick. Giant locusts were attacking a horrified city. At that moment, by coincidence, the band lit into one of their signature tunes, Idiot Culture – a title Duff would later take as a band name. As the creatures wrecked havoc and terrified the population Byron sang:

There is

Something of great size

Out of control in the head

Of an insect

Of an INSECT!

“Great size and out of control”…it’s a perfect metaphor for The Spectators

Call it Chaos is one of the few remaining songs from sessions produced by Jack Weaver at Seattle’s Triangle Studio.  A few years later the studio was re-named “Reciprocal Recording” and the room became the home of seminal grunge recordings engineered and produced by Jack Endino. The song begins in a slightly more pop style than typical of The Spectators, but it was soon apparent the song wasn’t going for the radio-friendly new wave sound popular at the time. It implodes into a pile of chaotic, but intentional sonic bricks…each one falling on another in an almost precise way. It’s an example of what The Spectators were best at; simplicity appearing as much more than the sum of it’s parts.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Byron Duff, Stanford Filarca

 

The Refuzors

During the early to mid 1980s The Refuzors were A-list Seattle punk rockers. They were one of the best live bands around. Uncompromising, edgy and raw.  They could have been lumped in with alot of hardcore bands from that era but for one thing. The songwriting, mostly by guitarist and vocalist Mike Refuzor set them far ahead of other great hardcore Seattle bands.  And they were always unexpectedly fun.  The Refuzors started out as a trio, and it’s probably their original line-up or Mike Refuzor (Mike Lambert) Bass and Vocals, Danny Refuzor (Danny Barton) on guitar and Roach Refuzor Dan Bradshaw) on drums that is most memorable. Other incarnations included Ward Refuzor (Ward Nelson) on guitar, Al Dams, Mike Purdon on bass  and Renee Refuzor (Renee Vazquez) doing some of the vocals.

The Refuzors were good at creating controversy-but some of it was also the cause of the press.  In a revew of the band local rock critic (at the time) printed her views of The Refuzors (and Mike specifically) of being neo-Nazi, white supremecists and fascists.  The comments were made in the widely read but now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Her pronouncement wasn’t based on the lyrics or outward signs of Nazism.  The Refuzors never associated themselves with the neo-Nazi or white supremacist movements.  Hackett based her opinon on their dress; the all black, all leather uniform that many punks adhered to in the early 1980s.  The result of the public accusation led Mike to write one of his best songs, “White Power”.  And of course, once more the media went wild.  How could any major band write such a song?
The fact is the song’s lyrics make clear that they did NOT support white supremacy.  The lyrics start:

People may say things about me.
Some of them things are true, some are lies
With the power of the press you labeled me a Nazi
I bet you can’t even look me in the eyes

Later in the chorus Mike sings;

I never said White Power
I never said White Power to you
White Power
I’m sayin’ it now
You put those words in my mouth…

A studio version of the song was included on the near-legendary “Seattle Syndrome” compilation, but it seems as of this writing there are only very poorly recorded live versions of the song available on the internet.  Aside from the inclusion on The Seattle Syndrome The Refuzors released a cassette-only project in 1987 titled “Q. Why Do It, You’ll Never Get Rich A. Cuz I’m A Refuser” as well as Idol Records’ i987 release of a compilation called “Flashback”.

Other controversies were totally staged by The Refuzors themselves. For instance swinging a dead cat into the audience while playing their song “Splat Goes The Cat” to an all-ages audience. The mainstream press was not amused.  Rock critic Regina Hackett took another stab at denouncing the band.  She publicly accused Mike Refuzor of not having morals, while Mike countered “The cat was already dead anyway”.  No matter.  The fans loved it and it has become local Seattle lore-and one of the most memorable antics in the city’s rock history.

The Refuzors never made it out of the confines of the Seattle/Portland alt vortex. They probably never made a penny, but they Refuzors were the real deal. Totally without guile or bullshit, their lives and music were undistinguishable. They were hombres, outside the lines, with fiercely loyal fans. By the late 80s, though, the band slowly unraveled from drugs, alcohol and limited recognition outside the Northwest. They called it quits in 1989.  It’s a typical story, but it’s without a typical ending. Read on.

In the early to mid-90s Mike had met the proto-punk, psychedelic “creator of Flower Power” Sky Saxon formerly of “The Seeds” (Pushin’ Too Hard, Can’t Seem to Make You Mine)  Sky was currently living in Seattle after going broke near the height of his career, ending up on the streets, and later joining a “The Source Family” in Hawaii and re-naming himself “Sunshine”. Mike palled around with Sky, did a few shows together as The Wolf Pack and took part in the kind of over-the-top-escapist drug use that both were known for

In 1993 Mike put The Refuzors back together, although with a completely different line-up that included several members of Seattle’s “The Accused”.  The reconstituted  band recorded two sides for the now defunct Seattle label ‘Bag of Hammers’. The songs had been long been in The Refuzors repertoire and results were spectacular. The single Think I Lost My Faith b/w Jim Jones’ might just be the true missing link between the brilliant NW underground punk scene of the 1980’s and the equally brilliant, but over-hyped ‘grunge’ of the 90’s. Unfortunately ‘Bag of Hammers’ released only 800 copies of the single and without any promotion it went nowhere.   An additional 200 of the singles were pressed on clear vinyl, making it a true rarity.

Meanwhile Mike sank lower and lower, eventually ending up on the street and in the 2000’s he suffered a mild stroke and lost some of his sight. Without support from his old friends and fans he ended up nearly forgotten by music fans who thought “grunge”

Both ‘Think I Lost My Faith’ and ‘Jim Jones’ along with the 1981 release “White Power” have upfront drums & bass that was typical punk of rhythm section.  But The Refuzors weren’t above a heavy guitar sound and the occasional solo. Mike’s vocals were torn, ragged and raw, but not like every other cookie-cutter hardcore vocalist. This was real pain. It’s not fake suburban angst. There was a beautiful, passionate cruelty at work here. These songs are a brilliant mix of writing and delivery.  Stuff that makes people want to howl and cry and bang my head at the same time. It proves the theory that the greatest bands in the world will probably never be heard, or at least only heard by a few. Most will never make it outside their garage door.  Luckily The Refuzors were able to be an important, influential part of the 80s Seattle music scene.

The Refuzors may never end up onstage again. Mike is somewhat disabled, and living the life of a hermit, although he’s spotted around town now and again, and has even appeared onstage with The Fags, and with his good friend Charlie Thunders of the band “Thankless Dogs. Sadly, Roach Refuzor (Dan Bradshaw) passed away in early 2015.  I don’t know if The Refuzors were some of the ‘Shoulders of Giants’ grunge bands stood on, or if they were just garage-bound guys that got stepped on and tossed aside when the music biz smelled cash. It doesn’t matter. They were brilliant, beautiful, caustic and heart-wrenching in their honesty.  Maybe one day they’ll receive the belated respect that’s been overdue for many years.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011)  Garage Punk Hideout Forum, June 25-27, 2009, Discogs.com, Charlie Thunders, Mike Refuzor.

WREX

WREX was established in Belltown, Seattle by Michael Clay, Wes Bradley, and Aaron McKiernan in the early Fall of 1979.  The venue, at 2018 First Avenue, was formerly a leather gay bar called Johnny’s Handlebar, located on the ground floor of a former brothel. Johnny’s Handlebar, at the time it closed was said to be the oldest, continuously open gay bar on the West Coast.  For the first few months of it’s life WREX remained a typical 70s/80s gay bar, catering to local gay men.  The unique décor inside WREX included old car seats in the back, old airplane seats in the side area, and Seattle’s first music video system curated by Ted Ladd.  A DJ spun the popular music found in thousands of gay discos around the nation (and in Seattle) which also included a handful of the poppier “new wave” hits that most gay bars also included among their playlists. As the novelty of the new gay bar wore off the gay clientele retreated to many of their previous haunts around town.  The Brass Door, Neighbors, The Park Avenue, and a plethora of other LGBT venues that  were popping up with regularity.  WREX was still viable as a business, but they needed something more to bring in customers.  One of the targets WREX had not yet tapped into was the growing popularity of punk in the LGBT community  Many who came of age during the punk era rejected the “clone” culture that pervaded the  gay scene at the time.  Not only that, alot of younger straight adults interested in punk barely regarded a difference between themselves and their queer friends. They all gravitated  toward punk as an alternative, so they were all one tribe. It’s not surprising that gays bars were regularly part of the punk scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s.  They were always ready to allow punk rock in their midst because it represented the same kind of outsidership, and it’s no wonder so many gay youth were willing to embrace more outré artists that had emerged from gay disco-artists like Sylvester and the iconic Grace Jones.

Seattle’s punk and gay communities have often mingled together, and the subcultural mise-en-scène at WREX was no exception to that general rule. Occasionally, former Johnny’s Handlebar clientele would drop in after WREX’s opening, not yet knowing about the change in management and regular crowd. Since both gays and punks were then equally shunned by mainstream Seattleites, there was no true clash between the two subcultures.

Armed with that knowledge two gay young men who were familiar with the cross-pollination between punk and gay culture approached Aaron McKiernan, the principle investor in WREX with a proposal.  One night a week WREX would host dances showcasing the latest independent, alternative and punk rock. The two DJs there were Charles “Upchuck” Gerra, then a prominent figure within Seattle’s punk scene, and Dennis R. White who would later become a graphic designer. promoter. manager and part of the staff of The Rocket.  Although Gerra spun a few records each night, his real strength was hosting, mingling with and entertaining the crowd and promoting the fact that WREX had now become a haven for young gay and lesbians searching for their own space.  And with them came their allies and friends in the punk community.  All-ages clubs and all-ages shows had come and gone in Seattle, but no single club had devoted itself to punk and alternative dance music.  There was a ready audience waiting, so, on a rainy night in December 1979 just after 8PM the needle dropped onto “Orphans” by Teenage Jesus and The Jerks.  A new chapter in Seattle music had begun.

At first the crowds were sparse, but they grew throughout 1980 and eventually the club was just as much a “gay” venue as a “punk” venue that welcomed anyone with a love for the alternative scene.  Some time during this period, Mike Vraney (of Time Travellers and Modern Productions) began to book live music at the club.  His sights were high and he intended to showcase the best of popular local alternative bands with rising stars on the indie scene both in the US and Europe.  The first live band to play WREX was The Fastbacks (with a young Duff McKagen on drums).  Their set was meant to work out any kinks in presenting live music, and in anticipation of the first official show at WREX.  The next night The Blackouts and The Beakers opened for Delta 5 from Leeds, England.  Delta 5’s politically infused feminist politics had made them stand-outs in the early post-punk years.

From then on bands played at WREX three nights a week, originally booked by Vraney.  During his very successful run of bookings Vraney brought national and international acts to the club, as well as booking the cream of the crop of Seattle alternative bands.  The job was eventually turned over to WREX manager/publicist Wes Bradley.  Bradley had extensive ties within the established music business, so it wasn’t hard for him to get his foot in the door of the labels promoting alternative acts that were finally seeing some success in the wider music business.   Bookings were also handed over to independent agents as well as bookings by members of WREX’s own staff.  At the same time Ted Ladd, a video artist and curator was in the process of making headway with both video wallpaper and showing music videos between DJ’s and live music sets.

The shows filled it’s tiny space for most of the time WREX existed. Along with almost every local band then playing original music (starting with the Enemy), touring acts who played at WREX included Grace Jones, Joan Jett, X, The Fleshtones, Romeo Void, Wall of Voodoo, Los Microwaves, Hüsker Dü and others who were then becoming staples of alternative and college radio.  The frequency of shows — and their apparent local popularity — inspired other bars around Seattle to start booking original-music bands, thus giving a crucial boost to Seattle’s punk scene at a crucial time in its development. Additionally, certain bars near WREX in Belltown — such as the Frontier Room and the Rendezvous — soon became local punk hangouts. One gay bar that had always been punk-friendly was Tugs, Belltown.  The proximity of Tugs and WREX exponentially help create what would be one of the city’s best strips to enjoy music on, First Avenue.  A little further south down road lay The Showbox, and during the heyday of it’s operation was a showcase for everyone from Captain Beefheart to John Cale to The Specials to James Brown.  Smaller all-ages venues like Danceland and one-off store front gigs and artists’ studios became common.

By the height of WREX’s popularity Upchuck had continued pursuing his career as a rock performer, Dennis White was spinning records  one night a week, and involved in The Rocket, his own musical side projects, churning out hundreds of rock posters and producing a few band’s recordings on his Pravda label.  But the bulk of the music was presented by DJ’s Michael Clay and Ross Bostwick.  Bostwick would become the one single DJ that was the powerhouse behind the dance music at WREX.  He also made  the transition to the most popular DJ when the space became The Vogue, a few years later. His excellent taste in what was new, progressive, alternative or downright spooky kept the audience intrigued.  Meanwhile Ted Ladd continued to curate punk and new wave videos-a job he continued after the club became The Vogue.

Along with the fertile subcultural ferment that thrived at WREX, there was also an inevitable element of sleaze. At the end of many nights there, spilled beer lingered an inch or two thick on the concrete floor, and young couples often had sex openly on the back staircase during shows. Such was the standard punk nightlife during that time, in Seattle and elsewhere. The nature of its clientele wasn’t WREX’s most important problem: it also had constant problems with cash flow. Dennis White once lamented,

WREX was always out of cash. Toward the end I was buying the keg off the truck in the afternoon out of my own pocket, hoping they’d sell enough that night to pay me back.

Money-or lack of it-is the most common downfall of great nightclubs, so WREX officially closed on March 18, 1982. One year later, the same venue would reopen as The Vogue (in honor of the original hotel’s name-something lost on many of WREX’s former clientele). While focusing on recorded dance music played by DJs, also The Vogue hosted live music acts on off nights — including Nirvana’s first Seattle gig before a full audience on April 24, 1988.  Perhaps it was Nirvana’s “first Seattle gig before a live audience” Most rock historians consider this show the band’s first Seattle gig, but Bruce Pavitt, founder of Sub Pop Reocrds insisted that a Nirvana showcase he attended on April 10, 1988, at the Central Saloon was the band’s very first in Seattle.  He claims “No one else remembers it because it was just me, the doorman and about three other people.”

Some people see The Vogue as one of the first venues to host bands that would one day be known as “grunge”…but like the transition from the 80s to 90s Seattle music scene, it’s hard to escape that WREX had been important to that which would emerge around The Vogue and other clubs like Gorilla Gardens, The OK Hotel and The Metropolis.  Anyone old enough or with a good fake ID who would go onto become part of the late 80s/early 90s movement had stepped inside the doors of WREX at least once. “We all stand on the shoulders of giants” as has been pointed out so many times.

 

–Jeff Stevens & Dennis R. White Sources: Clark Humphrey, “Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story” (Feral House, 1995; MiscMedia, 1999, 2016); Clark Humphrey, “Seattle’s Belltown” (Arcadia Publishing, 2007); Peter Blecha, “Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’” (Backbeat Books, 2009); Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011),